Page 75 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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Over the decades two developments occurred which as good
as ended the ability of old-style secularists and Reform Jews
to think seriously about Jewish ethics. First, their universalism,
so liberating when Jews often had an ethnocentric ghetto-
mentality, became increasingly irrelevant as Jews generally in­
tegrated into the society. Their “Jewish” ethics merely took what
the reader of the journals of liberal opinion already knew and
adorned it with quotations from the Bible or the rabbis. This
might give the standard liberalism a certain Jewish flavor but
added no fresh or specific Jewish insight in matters of increasing
complexity. Writers from these groups remained most helpful
to the community as they identified those general socio-political
questions which had special Jewish implications.
Second, the universal, rationalist approach to ethical issues
— Kantianism in one or another of its forms — lost its cogency.
Partially this was a practical matter, the messianically touted
socio-ethical programs of social reconstruction having caused
very many serious new problems even as they partially resolved
certain old ones. Partially it was an intellectual matter, for Kant­
ianism lost its philosophic cachet once thinkers began tightly
associating rationality with logic and not with moral content,
while critics of philosophy exploded the Cartesian myth that
anyone actually had access to universal rationality rather than
inevitably projecting a quite particular persona.
As a result, ethical thinking displayed a new hospitality to
the particular sources of one’s ethics, “communitarianism” as
it has come to be called. Thus, what other ethicists thought Jews
might contribute to any discussion of a societal issue was not
their universalism but quite precisely the particular wisdom they
had worked out over the years, in a word,
And in
our community as well, Jews now as much concerned to be Jew­
ish as to be “American” wanted to know what Jewish law said
about a given issue in the past and today. As against a morality
which touted itself as fundamentally universal, this version of
our ethics would have no difficulty qualifying as “Jewish.”
The result has been a continuing stream of books in which
writers explore themes as diverse as the limits of advertising
(among other economic matters) or the range of attitudes to-